The Elizabeth’s Character Development and Misreading of Wickham
In Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”, one of the main characters, Elizabeth boasts, of her ability and skill at discerning character. However, after only her first conversation with Wickham, Elizabeth has already misread Wickham’s personality. In the first discourse between Wickham and Elizabeth, Austen subtly reveals that Elizabeth, in actuality, does not have the motivation or the opportunity to study Wickham’s character because her mind is focused entirely on Darcy. Although Elizabeth claims that she foolishly misread Wickham, Austen indicates that it is only because of Elizabeth’s vanity and hatred for Darcy that she has any positive feelings towards Wickham. Austen also hints at the true nature of Elizabeth’s thoughts and her preoccupation with Darcy through the minute details of Elizabeth’s conversation, such as the manner in which she switches topics, or the words she uses to respond to Wickham. However, Austen distracts the reader by emphasizing Wickham’s physical attributes, and she consistently refers to his countenance, never mentioning his personality. By focusing on Wickham’s physical characteristics and revealing that Elizabeth never misread Wickham, Austen downplays the importance of the novel’s villain, thereby heightening the impact of Darcy’s letter and Elizabeth’s own character transformation.
During the first conversation between Elizabeth and Wickham, Austen insinuates that Elizabeth’s mind is already preoccupied by Darcy. Anxious to repair the injury done to her pride when Darcy called her “tolerable” during the first dance, Elizabeth engages in a conversation with Wickham with the intention of hearing about Darcy’s adverse past. In fact, the conversation’s only real topic is Darcy, and when Wickham begins “to speak on more general topics…with very intelligible gallantry,” Elizabeth never even responds. In this manner, Austen subtly suggests that Elizabeth does not truly believe Wickham to be the “most agreeable man [she] ever saw,” for if she did, there would be no reason for her to focus exclusively on the topic of Darcy. The friendly attitude that Elizabeth has towards Wickham does not result from Elizabeth’s interpretation of his character, for her mind is consumed by thoughts of Darcy, leaving no room for Wickham. In fact, the first time that Elizabeth shows any positive feelings toward Wickham occurs when he surprises her with unfavorable information about Darcy’s past. Austen hides Elizabeth’s emotions until this first mention of Darcy, when Elizabeth replies “warmly” to Wickham. By purposefully withholding Elizabeth’s emotions and then suddenly disclosing them at the topic of Darcy, Austen alerts the reader to the person who is really occupying Elizabeth’s mind.
From the very beginning of the conversation, Austen links Elizabeth’s feelings and thoughts to Darcy; Elizabeth “is very willing to hear [Wickham], though what she chiefly wishe[s] to hear…[is] the history of his acquaintance with Darcy.” Furthermore, Austen discloses Elizabeth’s preoccupation with Darcy in the very first line, noting that Elizabeth engages in the conversation with Wickham not because of Wickham himself, but because Elizabeth is “unwilling to let the subject [of Darcy] drop.” There are only four times in the entire discourse between Elizabeth and Wickham when Austen reveals Elizabeth’s perceptions of the conversation, but the first two instances are on the topic of Darcy. From the inception of the discourse, Elizabeth’s mind is wholly preoccupied with Darcy, making it impossible for Elizabeth to study Wickham’s character at all.
As the conversation progresses, Elizabeth’s initial interest in Darcy almost transforms into an obsession. When Elizabeth criticizes Darcy’s temper, Wickham is unusually terse, stating only that he “will not trust himself on this subject…and can hardly be just to [Darcy].” However, Elizabeth is not satisfied with this response, and continues to denounce Darcy’s character. There are several occasions in the conversation where the momentum of the dialogue slows down, but in every instance, Elizabeth fuels the conversation by continuing to slander Darcy. There are several times when Wickham actually offers Darcy meager praise, but in every instance, Elizabeth refuses to accept it. When they are discussing the “abominable pride of Darcy,” Wickham notes that Darcy has “family pride, and filial pride, and…also brotherly pride.” Austen illustrates the intensity of Elizabeth’s dislike for Darcy by having her immediately change topics, suddenly asking about Miss Darcy. While Elizabeth was initially eager to criticize Darcy’s pride, she suddenly loses interest in the subject, for she cannot accept any positive remarks about his character.
Austen underscores the strength of Elizabeth’s focus on Darcy by drawing a parallel between the very words Darcy and Elizabeth use. When Elizabeth refuses Darcy’s proposal to dance, Darcy gallantly responds with “Indeed, I do not dare.” Later, Elizabeth is so focused on Darcy during Wickham’s conversation that she too cries, “Indeed!” in response to Wickham’s disclosure of Darcy’s past. By having Elizabeth mirror Darcy’s language, Austen hints that Elizabeth is so engrossed with Darcy that she unconsciously strings his words into her own speech.
As Elizabeth becomes more focused on Darcy, her feelings toward Wickham grow increasingly warm. The primary reason for her transformation is that their shared dislike of Darcy creates an attachment. As Wickham relates an unfavorable story about Darcy, Elizabeth suddenly finds him “handsomer than ever.” Because Elizabeth never studied Wickham’s character, her entire assessment of him derives from “a solicitude, an interest” that they both share. It is solely their shared desire to scorn Mr. Darcy that causes Elizabeth to perceive Wickham as “her model of the amiable and pleasing.”
Austen also draws the reader’s attention to the bond between Elizabeth and Darcy. When their conversation ended, Elizabeth “[goes] away with her head full of…Wickham, and of what he had told her.” Austen repeatedly combines Wickham with mentions of Darcy to remind the reader that Elizabeth’s evaluation of Wickham is largely based on their shared dislike of Darcy.
While Austen suggests that Elizabeth never misread Wickham, she distracts the reader from the reality of Wickham’s personality by placing emphasis on his countenance. When Wickham is first introduced, Austen describes him physically – a rarity in the novel. Austen often appears reluctant to describe the physical appearances of the characters in her novel, often using dialogue to highlight important features. When Austen introduces Wickham, however, she describes him in considerable detail: a man who is “completely charming” and whose “appearance [is] greatly in his favour,” for he has “all the best part of beauty, a fine countenance, a good figure, and very pleasing address.” Wickham’s physical description is, in fact, the longest and most detailed of any character in the novel. Austen describes Wickham in great detail because she wishes to define his entire character based on his outward appearance.
Austen also employs other characters to underscore the importance of Wickham’s countenance. When Elizabeth reveals the information she learned about Darcy’s past to Jane, Jane believes Wickham’s story not because the facts are credible, but because of Wickham’s “amiable appearance.” In fact, Elizabeth herself admits that she believes Wickham because there is “truth in his looks.” Austen uses Elizabeth and other characters such as Jane to stress the importance of Wickham’s countenance and, by extension, the relative unimportance of his personality. It is only through the conversations between Elizabeth and Wickham that the reader is able to make any inferences Wickham’s personality, for Austen purposefully withholds any details of Wickham’s character.
Austen’s motive for emphasizing Wickham’s physical attributes reveals itself when Elizabeth receives Darcy’s letter. By underscoring Wickham’s countenance, Austen places the focus on Elizabeth’s character instead of Wickham’s character, simply because it is never discussed. Highlighting Wickham’s physical appearance enables Austen to prevent the reader from drawing any real conclusions about Wickham’s character. Because the reader is never informed about Wickham’s personality, he or she is forced to attribute the change in Elizabeth’s character only to Elizabeth herself. Furthermore, it is only now that Austen explicitly states that Elizabeth never misread Wickham, but rather “gratified [her] vanity in useless or blamable mistrust.” While Austen hints at Elizabeth’s pride during the conversation between Wickham and Elizabeth, here she directly states that “vanity…has been [her] folly.” Austen’s reveals that Elizabeth did not misread Wickham to convey that it is not Elizabeth’s inability to study character, but rather her pride that leads her to believe Wickham’s story. So engrossed is she with her dislike of Darcy that she completely abandons her usual habit of attending to her companion’s character. There is no viable reason for Elizabeth’s belief in Wickham other than her own vanity and pride.
While the popular belief is that over the course of the novel it is Darcy who learns humility, and Elizabeth who discovers the negative effects of prejudice, Austen reveals that Elizabeth, too, undergoes a transformation in vanity. Right after reading Darcy’s letter, Elizabeth finds herself aghast at the consequences of her own pride. By implying that Elizabeth never misread Wickham because she was so entirely preoccupied with Darcy, Austen conveys to the reader that both Darcy and Elizabeth transform their characters and acquire a degree of modesty. Furthermore, by using Elizabeth’s conversation with Wickham to emphasize the consequences of vanity, Austen transforms this novel from a plot-driven tale to a remarkable story fueled by the growth of complex, fascinating characters.
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